For a freshman show, the CW’s The Flash has taken off on the, ahem, right foot: Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen is appealing, the villains of the week are challenging, and the storytelling is, so far, thrilling. The lone Achilles’ heel in all this? The character of Iris West.
It’s not her fault, nor is it actress Candice Patton’s. Iris is a compelling and necessary asset to Barry Allen’s origin story. She’s the girl he grew up with, making her his best friend and confidante. She’s smart, she’s cool, and she’s got a mean right cross.
But because she’s also his love interest, she’s the only character in Barry’s inner circle to not be in on his superhuman secret. That makes her, unfortunately, the one who constantly stands in Barry’s way—both emotionally as his friend who suspects something’s up, and physically as the blogger tracking The Flash’s every move. More important, any meaningful character developments meant for Iris have become tethered to Barry’s secret, abandoned in favor of having her blindly chase after him like a wannabe Lois Lane. (Even when she, as in Tuesday's episode, has to save herself without The Flash, he feels the need to apologize to her about not being there.) It’s a plot that feels well-tread and, in turn, utterly stale.
In other words, Iris West is this fall season’s newest wet blanket.
She’s not just any wet blanket, though; Iris is the victim of what I like to call the Laurel Lance-Will Tippin Wet Blanket Syndrome. Named after characters from Arrow and Alias, respectively, this unfortunate phenomenon describes supporting characters who begin their series as possible love interests and/or best friends, but are kept in the dark about important information for no good reason. These characters, as a result, end up making the hero’s life more difficult, which attracts viewer disapproval—and sometimes even hate—instead of sympathy toward them.
The Flash isn’t the only show on air falling for this trope. While Iris runs around cluelessly in Central City, Jim Gordon’s (Ben McKenzie) girlfriend Barbara Kean (Erin Richards) is in the same place on Gotham. Sure, she arguably knows some information about Jim’s shady dealings with the (not yet) Penguin, but her limited knowledge puts her in danger—and makes her another unlikable lead. And while shows in other genres also deal with Big Secrets (to hide a summertime affair in the idyllic Hamptons, perhaps, or to keep others from knowing who murdered a law professor’s husband), the ones on The Flash and Gotham are particularly irksome, because they’re targeted toward one character whose only storyline becomes dealing with a secret the audience already knows.
It’s not hard to see why these shows are using the trope: Comic books, their source material, traditionally serve it up. Spider-Man and Mary Jane, Superman and Lois Lane—no matter the coupling, it’s almost always the same.
On film, with a set running time, keeping an identity secret from one major character can go on largely without incurring audience fatigue. On TV, audiences have to sit week after week watching the same scene play out in different ways, which means characters with potential for their own stories get written into corners. Smallville’s Lana Lang took a whopping six seasons to learn Clark Kent’s secret; by then, she’d already become extraneous to the plot.
Which brings me back to the first half of that syndrome name. Laurel Lance, played by Katie Cassidy on Arrow, is a classic wet-blanket character who failed to translate well on the small screen. The show pushed the trope as far as it would go for two seasons: Introduced as Oliver Queen’s ex-girlfriend and possible love interest, Laurel remained in the dark even after every other main character learned The Arrow’s true identity. (Her father’s still unaware of Oliver’s secret, but he’s also not Oliver’s ex-girlfriend and was never billed as the show's female lead. There's more pressure placed on Laurel to be a compelling character—even more so than on Oliver's sister, Thea, who's also left in the dark—because she's linked to him romantically and serves as one of the city's top defense attorneys. As a D.A., she's a thorn in a vigilante's side.)
During the first season, the writers saddled Laurel with a love-triangle plot. During the second, they sidelined her with a weighty alcoholism arc. Now, during the third season, they’re finally bringing her into Oliver-as-Arrow’s world—but to most fans, it’s too late for character rehab, even if Laurel will finally become the kickass Black Canary.
It’s not always female characters or love interests relegated to the role of the wet blanket, though they certainly represent the majority. Bradley Cooper’s Will Tippin on Alias, part two of that syndrome name, left the show over the same audience distaste caused by the trope. Alias followed a comic-book-like thread with Jennifer Garner as super-spy Sydney Bristow. And Will, as Sydney’s best friend and possible love interest who didn’t know about her secret identity, often unwittingly hindered her missions.
This soured the character for fans of the spy drama and for Cooper himself. After all, why keep a character who knew so little about Sydney’s SD-6 life and who would always be suspicious of her? Why keep a guy whose lines every episode amounted to different versions of “Sydney, what are you not telling me?”
In a January 2014 interview with GQ magazine, Cooper said the show couldn’t figure out a better way to integrate Will into Sydney’s life, even after learning her secret. As with Laurel, his character took too long to get there—the funny payoff came only after hours wasted watching Will speculate about Sydney. “I would only work three days a week. And then for the second season, I got even more sidelined. I was like, ‘Ugh,’” he told GQ. “And then next thing you know, I was like, ‘I want to fucking kill myself.’” Eventually, he convinced showrunner J.J. Abrams to write Will Tippin off the show, which is one way to fix the problem.
In the third season, viewers caught a glimpse of the other way to fix the problem, when an episode showed what could have been if Will had been brought in on the secret earlier. Cooper returned for an episode in which Will and Sydney teamed up on one of Alias’s more ridiculous missions: They posed as rock stars. Their friendship introduced dynamics that weren’t possible before, but by then, it was too late to write Will back in (and Cooper didn’t want that anyway).
Perhaps to better understand how to get out of the trope and the Laurel Lance-Will Tippin Wet Blanket Syndrome is to look a wet blanket who had nothing to do with superhero (or superhero-adjacent) shows: Skyler White of Breaking Bad. The backlash Anna Gunn received for playing Skyler prompted her to pen a New York Times op-ed in 2013 on the phenomenon. In it, she reasoned:
Because Walter is the show’s protagonist, there is a natural tendency to empathize with and root for him, despite his moral failings ... As the one character who consistently opposes Walter and calls him on his lies, Skyler is, in a sense, his antagonist. So from the beginning, I was aware that she might not be the show’s most popular character.
Gunn’s point about Skyler being an antagonist works well as the reason why the trope fails so many supporting characters. Gunn may be writing about the vitriol directed at her character and other female characters on TV—mainly the wives who don’t back down—but either way, audience perception matters. In her case, an otherwise reasonable character (she’s dealing with a husband with cancer who has decided to make meth) becomes perceived as the bitch. And only after she was let in on Walt’s secret did audiences get to see her grapple with her morals, becoming a character not defined by Walt’s actions and secret-keeping, but her own.
And no, of course Barry Allen’s nothing like Walter White. But the antagonism is more easily pronounced on comic-book shows, where the good and bad characters are usually seen in black and white. Barry Allen is good, Captain Cold is not. Oliver Queen is good, Ra’s al Ghul is not. Jim Gordon is good, everyone else in Gotham is not.
These clear-cut lines make it hard for writers to expose secrets to wet blankets sooner on TV; after all, they’re trying to remain as faithful to the source material as possible. But deviating from the formula can work: Arrow’s Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) barely resembles her print counterpart, but her early enlightenment and subsequent rapport with Oliver has made her one of the best characters on the show. TV’s comic-book characters don’t have to be written off, or written into corners until audiences despise them. They just have to be let in on the secret.
So, Iris West? Barbara Kean? Laurel Lance? The writers may say they’re good, but when they’re kept in the dark, the viewers have a hard time believing that.